A Forgotten Episode In John Ritter’s Sitcom Legacy

Welcome to a new Wildcard Wednesday! In honor of John Ritter — who was born during this week in 1948 and passed (way too soon) during this week in 2003 — I am sharing a lesser-known sitcom endeavor in which he participated, both as an executive producer and a guest star. This is partially inspired by a Q&A submission from Paul D., who inquired about my interest in covering the very short-lived sitcom Have Faith (1989, ABC) given the Barney Miller connections. So, here’s my potpourri review, along with the episode that features the late, great John Ritter…


HAVE FAITH (April 1989 – June 1989, ABC)

Premise: A Catholic parish in Chicago ministers to its community.

Cast: Joel Higgins, Ron Carey, Stephen Furst, Frank Hamilton, Francesca P. Roberts, Todd Susman

Writers: Nat Mauldin, Alicia Ulrich, Jeremy Lew, Tony Sheehan

Thoughts: This ensemble workplace multi-cam about Catholic priests indeed has Barney Miller overtones, which is no surprise given the association from Mauldin and Sheehan’s writing, Pitlik’s directing, and Carey’s casting. Although it’s jokier than Barney Miller, especially in its debut, it is quite similar. For instance, it’s got a great cast, and yet stories are barely about the leads themselves or their relationships, as plots are instead consumed by episodic, guest-of-the-week fare that’s simply a less genre-validating form of sitcommery. Oh, the opener sets up the idea of a clash between the monsignor, who wants to be more modern, and an elderly father who is more traditional, but beyond the initial example of their differing stances on corporal punishment for kids, that conflict rarely gets evidenced elsewhere in plot points that could then be revealing for their characters. Speaking of characters, ALL the leads are only lightly defined — in large part because their opportunities to be fleshed out via narrative are limited. To wit, while Barney Miller was deliberate about giving us little of its regulars’ lives outside the office, Have Faith is inherently restrictive in how personal it can be because, well, most of them are priests who don’t have lives outside their work. At least not in the present. Family members and people from their past can show up — and surely do — which is the best guest material we can get, for there are higher stakes as a result of intimate bonds that can also offer valuable intel about the regulars. But it’s still dependent on outside forces instead of the actual stars, who exist together within this situation that we want more directly, singularly examined. Meanwhile, of lesser concern… the show’s religious themes allow it to be serious whenever it chooses, and the tonal back-and-forth between jokey and reverent is sometimes smart, but sometimes ill-calibrated… All of which goes to say that I think Have Faith is a lot like Barney Miller, but in only seven episodes, it never has the opportunity to become a worthy successor, for it’s mired in even more shortcomings that it doesn’t have time to allay – and who knows if it ever would. In general, minimizing its leads’ narrative possibilities, primarily in direct relation to one another, is always a risk, regardless of how funny and/or sensitive the writing itself.

Episode Count: Seven episodes produced and broadcast.

Episodes Seen: All seven.

Key Episodes: #3: “The Window” (05/02/89) and #4: “Bingo” (05/16/89)

Why: #4 is the show’s funniest episode after the premiere, with a conflict about the priests’ differing ideas on what’s appropriate in their parish, and #3 guest stars John Ritter — he was an executive producer and here plays the monsignor’s old friend, a former priest who has given it up but now toys with rejoining the flock. It ends up being more overwhelmed by Ritter than the regulars (the same criticism I have with another entry that features William Windom as one of the priest’s dads), but it’s memorable in a show that mostly isn’t, and because this week marks both the anniversary of Ritter’s birth and death, I’d like to highlight it here in honor of him — a forgotten chapter in his otherwise iconic body of sitcom work. God bless him!



Come back next week for a new Wildcard! And stay tuned Monday for a musical rarity!